(Headline Photo Credit: Huang Xiaolong/ Asean University Games 2016)
Before the biennial Asean University Games (AUG) football tournament in Singapore, Timor Leste had not made any notable impression at international football since their sovereign independence in 2002. 10 days in July at the fields of Nanyang Technological University’s Sports and Recreation Centre would change all that.
Displaying a swashbuckling style of football, the Timorese caused a sensation as they finished runners-up behind eventual champions Thailand at the end of the seven-nation event. Laos (5-2), Myanmar (5-1) and Malaysia (2-1 in the semi-finals) were left trailing in their wake, but Thailand outclassed them twice – in the group stage (1-3) and final (0-3).
The silver medal display – one of two the Timor Leste AUG contingent were to achieve in Singapore and the biggest achievement by any Timorese football team – was a remarkable improvement from their dismal debutante showing in Palembang, Indonesia, less than two years ago. Then, they exited at the group stage without a victory to their name.
The big difference was down to the presence of eight full internationals in their 17-man squad. They were involved in the senior national team’s recent Asian Cup and World Cup qualifiers, and featured in the 2015 Southeast Asian Games football tournament where their nation finished fifth out of a six-nation group in the preliminary round.
The octet were: goalkeeper Ramos Maxanches, defenders Felipe Oliveira and Jorge Sabas Victor, midfielders Feliciano Pinheiro Goncalves and Jose Fonseca, strikers Rufino Walter Gama, Frangcyatma Alves and Henrique Cruz. All featured prominently in their run to silver in Singapore.
Head of the Timor Leste AUG delegation, Zeferino Viegas Tilman, hailed the success of the football team to the consistent and constant exposure the key players had playing in competitive domestic club and international football.
“Although our target for football was to win gold, finishing second was alright with us,” the National University of Dili lecturer told AseanBola after the post-tournament medal ceremony. “All our players play for various clubs in the Timor Leste top flight (Liga Futebol Amadora).
“The international players in our team have experience competing against other nations, so this has made our team more competitive and provided a massive boost during the tournament.”
Curiously, Timor Leste are the sole squad to have national team players in their ranks. Gold medallists Thailand mounted their successful title defence on the back of solid performances from Pattaya United striker Anusak Laosangthai, the leading AUG footballer with his sharp shooting in the final third, and former Thai youth international Kittikai Juntaraksa.
Bronze medallists Singapore only have a professional player in graduate Anders Aplin, who is a fringe player with S.League club side Geylang International, while fourth-place Malaysia are without several players from the Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) due to their ongoing commitments in the Malaysian second-tier Premier League.
AUG regulations state that participating players must be between the ages of 17 and 28, and have to be enrolled in a university in the region and pursuing an area of study or graduating in the year of competition. While the internationals meet the age requirements comfortably, their institutional eligibility is a source of concern.
The lack of transparency on the educational and professional backgrounds of the players raises questions whether the Timor Leste AUG football side have attempted to obtain a massive advantage over their rivals with such a massive presence of seasoned players when their competitors had not done so.
If the likes of Felipe Oliveira and Henrique Cruz are in the mould of graduate professional footballers such as Singapore international Zulfadli Zainal Abidin and Sunderland striker Duncan Withmore, this story would have ended with a nicer fairy-tale tone complimenting the stellar achievements of these players.
Unfortunately there are a few glaring gaping holes that have cast a dark shadow on the Timorese’s celebrated success on the pitch. If they have no fear on the educational and professional integrity of the players, why did they not provide such details to the organisers in the 2014 AUG Games? Even the SEA Games football teamsheets saw blanks in the club profiles of the squad.
A quick check on the eight players in the national Under-23 squad profile on Wikipedia indicated that the majority came from this so-called team named Teouma Academy in 2015. A year later, they are in the main national squad, apparently playing for the football team of the Dili Institute of Technology (DIT), with a couple featuring for another club AS Academia.
In this case, the background of one of the eight, Frangcyatma Alves, does not tally. For a supposed 19-year-old who is apparently into his third year of undergraduate studies in tourism at the DIT (as described by the player to AseanBola), how did he manage to juggle his studies at his homeland with games in Indonesia for Persiku Dynamo Kupang in 2015 before joining FC DIT this year?
Presuming his age is authentic and there is a proper high school system in Timor Leste like many parts of the world, he is at most likely to be a freshman in his present institution – and would not have been eligible to feature in the 2014 AUG edition (as again described by the player himself). Which proper tertiary education system in the world would have a third-year undergraduate senior at the age of 19, save for a rare handful of renowned academic prodigies?
Questions over the maladministration of data and background of the affected players over the years have cast doubts over the legitimacy of the AUG silver medal. It also raises parallels to the controversy over the usage of Brazil-born naturalised players to feature for the main national team in the World Cup and Asian Cup qualifying matches in the past couple of years.
The presence of eight internationals and their road to silver have led to quiet discontent on the scale of their achievements as rival nations have been reluctant to discuss over the sudden improvement of Timor Leste in this AUG.
Thailand assistant manager Atipol Suwandee declined to dwell on the added advantage of international experience in their final opponents. “I am not at all surprised by how far Timor Leste reached in this tournament,” he said. “They are the second best team in the tournament after us because they reached the final.”
An unnamed Singapore official expressed his relief that his bronze medallists did not have to face the Timorese during their campaign and enjoyed a clean tournament where they played against opponents who had integrity and fielded genuine university undergraduate-footballers.